I Was Promised Fear, But All I Got Was This Handful of Dust: After Earth
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I Was Promised Fear, But All I Got Was This Handful of Dust: After Earth

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film Reviews | May 31, 2013 | Comments ()


After Earth is a difficult movie to appropriately review. It's getting absolutely hammered around the Internet, with a catastrophic 13% positive on Rotten Tomatoes at the moment. The criticisms take aim at two main points: that the film is exceedingly dull and that Jaden Smith can't act his way out of a paper bag. The latter point is perfectly accurate. I hadn't seen a film with Jaden Smith in it yet, and other than a certain level of inescapable celebrity news coverage that seeps in no matter how indifferent you are, I went into this film with little in the way of a pre-formed opinion.

The younger Smith seems incapable of emoting other than in overly exaggerated dramatic cliches, that simply emphasize just how much of a vacant presence he is on the screen at all other times. It's one thing when that's said about a child actor, but Jaden is fifteen years old at this point and what's missing isn't something that can be taught or grown into. You can learn to act, but cannot learn to be the charismatic force that his father is. It would be an unfair comparison to make if Jaden showed acting ability along a different dimension than his father, but the fact that he doesn't only emphasizes that particular deficit. The hard reality is that this kid has shown no ability to actually do the jobs he continues to get by virtue of his father's name.

That's the easy part to review. The more difficult part to talk about is the movie itself. Science fiction stories set up a surface layer of a different world in order to address in the subtext themes and ideas that are applicable to our world and experience. This is rarely a one-to-one mapping except in exceedingly simplistic and lazy science fiction (and those aliens are Americans, and that planet is Iraq, and those mean people are the political party the author doesn't like), which is part of the power of science fiction. It lets us set up elements of stories that resonate dramatically but never sit next to each other in the real world. But the catch is that the surface layer better actually make sense and be interesting in its own right, or we'll never pay attention to the underlying themes.

After Earth has some major problems with that surface layer. So humans abandon the Earth they ruined and settle another planet, where they have to fight aliens. Said aliens, we are told in somber voice over, genetically develop creatures that can sense human fear. Basically they're big old CGI things like bears crossed with lions. The humans fight them with fancy little devices called cutlasses that transform into all manner of different blades. It's really too bad that humanity crossed the stars, figured out how to build T1000 swords, but forgot how to build shotguns, because then that war would have been a lot shorter.

Oh did I forget to mention that the creatures are blind and can only see humans that are afraid? And they're so damned stupid that the instant a human stops being afraid they become invisible? Oh my golly, there was a scared human, but he's been replaced by an inanimate object, where in the world could he have gone? And they go to great pains to establish that the basis of this is phermones, and that a human inside an airtight container is safe. So even if humanity really did forget how to build guns, one might think they would have a spacesuit or two in the spaceships they just got out of. Invisible army!

When your super scary alien menace is actually a lot less frightening than any of Earth's assorted large predators, the idea that they represent a threat driving humanity to the brink becomes sort of laughable. Bitch please, you're an overgrown blind lion. My ancestors faced your ilk down butt naked with flint spears. Smell my fear? Smell my cruise missiles, asshole.

And there's this really weird thing going on with accents. Everyone speaks perfect English after a thousand years, but they all have these strange hodge podge accents that fade out during action sequences when the actors forget they're supposed to be inexplicably violating their vowels. It's an interesting idea on paper, but in execution is just distracting. Jaden Smith has difficulty conveying broad ideas like "happy!" and "sad!" so throwing an imaginary accent at him is just ill-conceived and cruel.

And don't even get me started on the names. Will Smith's character is named "Cypher Raige", the last name of which is pronounced somewhere between "rage" and "rash" thanks to the bad accent work. Jaden's character is named "Kitai", which is Russian for "China". So for the entire movie, I'm thinking to myself that the rock bottom of unintentional humor must be the Fresh Prince yelling at China in Russian in an imaginary accent after the apocalypse.

But all of this setup only exists in order to crash land the Fresh and Fresher Princes upon long abandoned Earth, along with one of these monsters. And faster than we can pray that the bad actor is the one who gets injured and left behind, we're disappointed by the opposite. Thus is set up the tale of a boy who must survive in the wilderness and overcome his fears and inability to emote.

So the world building set-up of the first layer is terribly sub par. But let's take a breath for a moment and separate that part out. Just because the framing of the story is bad doesn't mean that the story itself has to be. And that part of the movie is much better, and has some interesting approaches that while they never quite pan out to being good, are at least attempts to explore what the nature of fear and bravery are.

Most critics are ripping apart how dull and eventless the middle portion of the movie is, noting that all Fresh China runs into are a few badly CGI'ed animals that aren't particularly different from what we see in zoos, failing in any way to live up to the promise of Will Smith's intonation that everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans. I think they're more or less totally off base, thinking with their own knowledge instead of the knowledge of the characters in the film. If you had never seen a monkey in your life, never been to a zoo, never seen an episode of Nova following them around, and your first experience was a group of them meandering towards you after having just been warned that everything was trying to kill you, you would probably panic too.

The idea that this natural world is terrifying to the characters not because of its dangers but because they don't know it is fantastic, linking the discussion of fear back to the unknown. The monster hunting him is called Ursa, the bear, and all he has to fight it with is a spear. Done well, that's fantastic metaphor. Finding shelter in an old cave, and using charcoal from his fire to sketch his map and plan alongside millennia-old cave paintings of a horse hunt. Done well, fantastic metaphor. Being saved by the eagle whose chicks he tried to save from lions as a hint that it's not turning off fear of dying that leads to bravery, but of discovering something worth the dying for. Again and again, done well, fantastic metaphor.

But in the end, these hints at nuance disappear in the finale, when Fresh China gets whacked something righteous and he manages to turn off emotion and fear and become a machine (ironically Jaden Smith's only convincing acting in the movie). The real failing of the film isn't in the first layer or even really in the distractingly bad acting, it's in what its conception of bravery is. It tries to sell us on this notion that bravery means shutting off fear. But that's a child's notion of fear and bravery. Will Smith's character makes the interesting argument that fear is our mind telling us stories about the terrible things that might happen causing us to freeze. He's got that much right, but his solution, to root oneself so totally in the present that one feels nothing, is not the answer. That's what the animal does.

It's fascinating to me that a story that seems to touch so heavily on Frank Herbert's Dune, with his admonishment that fear is the mind killer, fails so totally to absorb anything more from that mythos. What Herbert argues is that the difference between a human and an animal is that a human can knowingly suffer, can feel pain and agony voluntarily, in order to earn a better future. Rooting oneself in the present is the precise opposite of that. Acting because you feel no fear when you should is not bravery, it's just a clever bit of cowardice.

All that being said, After Earth tries to talk intelligently about something, and I think it fails at making its argument. But I would much rather watch the attempt than the dozen other films at the theater that are dumber than rocks and have no aspiration of being more. And that's why I say a movie like this is so difficult to review properly. It tries and fails utterly. But I think disastrous attempts at thinking are more worth the watching than glitzy crap that doesn't bother.

After Earth is not a good movie. And I hope they make more like it.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • wes bryant

    i find my whole belief system challenged by the Smith family, how can i possibly hate the wife and children of one of my favorite actors so much that blood drips from major appendages when i even hear their names? and still I feel nothing but love for Will, he's the devil!

  • zeke_the_pig

    'Bitch please, you’re an overgrown blind lion. My ancestors faced your
    ilk down butt naked with flint spears. Smell my fear? Smell my cruise
    missiles, asshole.'

    Times like this, SLW makes zeke very happy.

  • Smatt584

    Good to see nepotism fail so miserably every now and again...

  • Tony

    It's rare to read a review that shows so much genuine effort. I'm in tears from laughing so hard at the initial paragraphs describing such incoherent images that aren't so incoherent when exposed under your sincerely-balanced and forgiving perspective.

    It seems you wanted desperately to be 'surprised' by this film, but to admit to actually enjoying a "disastrous attempt" despite the head-scratching leaps of logical or philosophical premises is what every movie reviewer should aspire to: yeah, it sucked in so many ways, but I liked it nonetheless. Excellent.

  • Lee

    This article from The Onion says it all so succinctly :)


  • Two things strike me with this movie:
    1. This is clearly a Smith family vanity project and I want know part of that. Also does Will Smith not realize we go to his movies to see him and not his charmless offspring?
    2. How many chances is Hollywood going to give M Night? Seriously...we've been burned so many damn times. He had two decent movies in him and that's all. It's way past time to cut their losses with him.

  • EshinX

    Here is the problem I have with the setup for this movie. In the plot humans abandoned Earth over 1000 years ago, if that is the case why have all of these animals "evolved to kill humans"? If they haven't seen a human in 1000 years, why would they be evolved to kill them? This makes no sense to me.

  • greg

    They evolve to become better killers of living organisms that include humans

  • Return of Santitas


  • duckandcover

    After Earth is not a good movie. And I hope they make more like it.

    This should be quoted with the backdrop of a wartorn civilization, because I swear to God, all I could think was apocalyptic thoughts.

    Also, Jaden Smith is a void. He was on the Graham Norton Show with his dad and it was like a black hole was just sucking out the fun and life of the entire bit. I can understand that a father loves his son, I can. But ffs, constantly landing him bits beyond Pursuit of Happyness is just going too far.

    Graham Norton bit I was talking about: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • Archie Leach

    Uh duh: jaden don't want to do what will wants and so thus is "walking" thru his parts....

  • duckandcover

    Oh, that's why.

  • Devil Child

    Honestly, it's an M. Night Shyamalan movie. A man so feeble-minded he makes Bret Ratner and Joel Schumacher look like Orson Welles and Tennessee Williams.

    I'd rather watch the TV show from Idiocracy where that dude got hit in the balls. It'd be more intellectually stimulating than anything India's greatest retard has done this millennium.

  • foolsage

    "Ow! My Balls!" had better writing than anything Shyamalan has done in ages, agreed. But then so did "Ass".

  • I didn't believe my husband when he told me it was written by Shyamalan. Then I confirmed it on imdb and couldn't stop laughing. I must have seen at least 15 different trailers for this shit and none of them even mentioned Shyamalan! Remember when he was the one thing drawing you to a movie? Then he made The Last Airbender and it's like they go out of their way to keep his involvement with this a secret. Nooo, it's just Will Smith! forget about the man behind the curtain!

    It's like they knew the second people figured this out they'd know it was absolute shit and wouldn't bother watching it. Smart move. Now they won't go see it because they heard it's shit, but at least they got some quick money in the release.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Fresh China is the new Charming Potato.

    Well done Sir.

  • dizzylucy

    "The hard reality is that this kid has shown no ability to actually do
    the jobs he continues to get by virtue of his father’s name."

    I actually feel kind of bad for him. When most kids express an interest in acting, their parents may encourage them by taking them to lessons or letting them start to audition for little roles, where they have to learn to work at it and face some rejection.
    This kid has been handed a starring in role in what's probably a $150-200 million budgeted movie, and having to learn on the job - which will be then be seen by millions and dissected by critics and viewers, as any major movie should be. That's a lot to put on the shoulders of many adult actors, let alone a teenager who has in all likelihood grown up in a bubble, and especially one who doesn't have the talent to back it up (haven't seen him in anything besides Happyness so I'm taking your word for it there).

  • lowercase_ryan

    Until I see him go to lunch at Nobu in a shitty Iron Man costume. Then all my sympathy goes right out the window.

  • bleujayone

    Many of us just see a series of crappy movies, but perhaps it runs far deeper than that.

    Does anyone else get a Citizen Kane vibe out of Smith in that Charlie tried to use all his money and influence to make his mistress/second wife Susan into a famous opera singer despite the fact that try as she might, the talent just wasn't there? Charlie kept pushing and pushing and pushing, going so far as to make all his papers give her rave reviews and even built her an opera house. In the end it was Susan herself who saw what everybody else but Charlie did- she couldn't hack it. I wonder how long Smith can keep trying to force-feed promote his son. Smith even wrote the story to this script before handing it off and both he and his wife are producers of this film too. Sound familiar?

    Between Jaden and Willow, I see two kids who are being forcibly groomed to be something they aren't and quite probably something they don't even want to be. Jaden Smith cannot act. He's is not enjoyable to watch and more importantly does even give the impression that he really wants to do this. He is the multimillion dollar version of a kid being forcibly signed up to play baseball by his overenthusiastic sports-nut father. He'd rather be doing something- anything else. Sure he might be able to play (but not well) and his obnoxious parent is whooping it up in the stands proclaiming him to be the next big thing, but in reality the kid just hopes for a combination of not being mortified and face the wrath of paternal disappointment. He must read what people say. He must have at least an inkling in the back of his head that this isn't working. If he ever had a passion for this, it was rubbed raw like many over-zealous parents do to their kids.

    I would love to be a fly on the wall if Jaden ever tells his father that acting isn't fun for him anymore and he'd rather try his hand at something else. Much like Kane, I think Smith will be the last person aware of what's going on, and like many stage parents may not take in consideration what's best for his son.

  • duckandcover
  • Sara_Tonin00

    I don't think it's the forcing him to sign up for baseball so much as the father who really, really wants to hand the family business down to the next generation. Esp after Smith's comments about teaching his son hunting.

    but a lot of people find themselves through failing, so maybe it will turn out well for Jaden in the long run.

  • e jerry powell

    You're on to something. I noticed in the trades that once Willow dropped out of the Annie remake (and once again I ask: WHY?), Will and Jada dropped out as producers, and suddenly Quvenzhané Wallis was being pushed with the new producers coming in. W&J had no faith in the project except as a vehicle for their daughter, no matter how lame the role would have been for her.

    Plus which, Annie can't whip her hair back and forth.

  • MomDoc

    In the last interview I read (New York Magazine), Will notes that Willow "un-chose"singing and dropped out of Annie herself. Willow wants to be 12 and go to school with her friends and hang out with them. So maybe she decided to back off herself?

  • e jerry powell

    That would be sensible of her. Perhaps there's hope.

    Oh, and you were answering the "WHY?". I was more WHY-ing the need to do yet another Annie. Or I could have misunderstood.

  • I don't know that Annie needs to be remade, but I'm about a thousand times more interested in one with Quvenzhane Wallis than Willow Smith.

  • e jerry powell

    I, too, would love to see Quvenzhane in a film musical, but we've already had two of these puppies, one for film, the other for television. Are we as a culture that low on ideas?

  • DarthCorleone

    I'll be skipping this one. I do appreciate SLW's thoughtful analysis, though, as opposed to jumping on the take-down dogpile.

    As far as acting goes, I thought Jaden did o.k. in the new Karate Kid movie, even though I found that movie to be completely pointless for me personally.

  • foolsage

    Agreed. Jaden was passable in that movie, though I only watched it to make an intercontinental flight slightly less tedious. I wouldn't say he was great, but then he didn't show the complete lack of talent SLW saw here. Might it be an issue of direction? Or possibly he just feels pressure when he acts around his dad? Or maybe he's really a crappy actor and The Karate Kid was a fluke.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Do you know how tragic it is to be the director doing the shots, then watching the dailies, then in the cutting room, the whole time thinking "I'm just being picky, right? the performance isn't as bad as I think it is, right? other people won't notice, right? This thing I just poured my heart, soul and precious precious time into isn't ruined, right?"

  • Slash

    The ads I've seen for this thing make it look terrible. So there weren't even enough good scenes to put together a 30-second spot.

  • calliope1975

    Eh, it's Shayamalan. I don't think he remembers what's good anymore.

  • space_oddity

    I had no fucking clue he directed this until I read some reviews. Seems like a fact the PR people were trying not to emphasize. I mean, given his completely downward trending trajectory, how much of the awfulness of this movie is due to him, and how much to the lack of Fresher Prince's inability to emote? Or did they just combine, along with a bad story, to create a perfect shit tornado of horribleness?

  • Which is disappointing. He got some stellar performances out of adults and kids in his early films.

  • Devil Child

    Shyamalan hasn't made a good movie since the Twin Towers were erect, and numerous "worst films of the century" contenders since. It's not so much "disappointing" anymore as it is an indication that he just got lucky.

    Hell, Adam Sandler and Michael Bay have made more good films this millennium than Shyamalan, and those are the guys who made movies about pedophilia and giant robots that urinate on people.

    The only thing left to hope for is that Blinding Edge Pictures doesn't have the same self sustaining cashflow that Happy Madison does. Otherwise this idiot'll be in business until he's reincarnated as a dung beetle which sustains its existence by consuming reels of the Happening.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    True enough. If he didn't think that when watching himself in dailies, who would he think it for?

  • Mrs. Julien

    It is? How did I not know that? 10 years ago they would have shouted his involvement from the rooftops. I guess he's not a name draw anymore.

    I figured this movie was a disappointment when I saw Will Smith doing a charm offensive on Graham Norton. You don't fly in DJ Jazzy Jeff and Carlton for a talk show unless you are really trying to convince people to see a big budget movie. Oprah used to be a similar kiss of death.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I had also not remembered that this was Shmalamadingdong, but now that it's been mentioned, I believe this was the movie that caused him to abandon Phladelphia as a filming location because PA didn't renew tax breaks. That's not true though - apparently it was "Devil." (I don't even remember that one.)

    however, a trip to IMDB to research the above indicates that After Earth 2 is in development. *shudder*

  • apsutter

    Surprisingly, Devil actually wasn't that bad.

  • Lee

    He has writing credits on that one, but he didn't direct (which explains why it wasn't terrible).

  • apsutter

    Oh yea! I remember that because the bf and I were at the movies when it came out and were trying to decide what to see. We were intrigued by Devil but had burned by M. Night before but once I saw it wasn't directed by him I figured we'd give it a shot. I was actually pleasantly surprised and it was the first movie in a long time to actually make me jump in shock/horror.

  • Wembley

    After After Earth?

  • Sara_Tonin00

    After Earth 2: The Aftering.

  • e jerry powell

    What a twist!

  • Stephen Nein

    This sounds to me a lot of the basic notions of Scientology (Whoa, stay with me here!) even though I know Scientology's fucking evil, and it's cliche to try and overread the religious glop into an artists' work.

    If you read Lawrence Wright's Going Clear, one of the basic points Wright makes is that even though L. Ron Hubbard was a serial abuser and sociopath, he was well aware of how fucked up he was and was trying to fix his flaws and other people's flaws. He talked constantly about intelligent issues, but failed spectacularly to address them in intelligent ways.

    The notions of fear and it's elimination Smith is aiming for - that is textbook Scientology. The idea behind auditing is to take past emotional issues that affect you and grind them into something that strips away the fear, leaving clear rational thought.

  • Mrs. Julien

    That is really interesting and just goes to confirm my entirely unsubstantiatated belief that the Smiths are Scientologists.

  • apsutter

    It's very clear in the way that they speak that they definitely have ties to Scieno. Especially with how they talk about their kids and treat their careers. They essentially see them as adults and let them do what they want in regards to working.

  • Samantha Klein

    I thought they were confirmed Scientologists, actually.

  • foolsage

    No, they've never admitted to it. When pressed, Will claims to be a "student of world religions". However, they donate a lot of money to Scientology, and they started a school that uses Scientology teaching methods.

  • They're not out of the closet with it, which is stupid, because everybody can already tell.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    According to Wikipedia, he's denied that, but had donated a lot of money to various of their organisations.

  • e jerry powell

    Kernel of truth, but on the whole, still pretty fucked up. Such is Hubbard.

  • dizzylucy

    I read a few pieces that made a pretty convincing arguments as well.

  • Arran
  • e jerry powell

    "Basically they’re big old CGI things like bears crossed with lions."

    Oh, my...

    (Because somebody had to.)

  • Danar the Barbarian

    Wait, I'm confused. Is that a "Wizard of Oz" reference? Because now whenever I read "Oh my", it's always in George Takei's voice.

  • e jerry powell

    With me, it can go either way; both are equally gay.

    But for reference's sake, it was very Dorothy Gale.

  • Mrs. Julien

    My goodness! What a fuss you're making!

  • e jerry powell

    Look at the circles under my eyes! I haven't slept in weeks!

  • Stephen Nein

    "But I think disastrous attempts at thinking are more worth the watching than glitzy crap that doesn’t bother."

    I have no idea what you're talking about. - JJ Abrams.

  • luthien26

    Bran Stark: "Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?" Ned Stark: "That is the only time a man can be brave."


  • Dragonchild

    Too bad the quote takes place in a world where the honorable act is sadistically portrayed as the sucker's move. Apt point in this context, though.

  • L.O.V.E.

    Will, stop trying to make Jaden happen. It's not going to happen.

  • PDamian

    Someone on Pajiba once posted in a different thread that he refused to participate in the Will Smith Project to Make His Kids Superstars. I concur wholeheartedly and refuse to see this film.

  • Slash

    Yeah, I'm already over both of the Smith spawn. And Will, please stop making such shitty movies. You actually can act. Maybe do another romantic comedy with Eva Mendes.

  • Zen

    Agreed. Will is crazy charismatic, but alas, the kid is not.

  • Veronica M. Davis

    If ­y○ս ­tһiոκ ­Stерһеո`s ­st○ry ­is ­ոiсе, ­, ­f○սr ­wеaκs-ag○ ­my ­br○tһеrs ­fatһеr ­iո ­law ­br○սgһt ­һ○mе ­$7566 ­w○rκiոg ­f○սrty ­һ○սrs ­a ­m○ոtһ ­aո ­tһеir ­һ○սsе ­aոd ­tһеrе ­сlassmatе's ­sistеr`s ­ոеigһb○սr ­d○ոе ­tһis ­f○r ­9-m○ոtһs ­aոd ­br○սgһt ­һ○mе ­m○rе ­tһaո ­ $7566 ­рart ­timе ­at ­tһеir ­рс. ­f○ll○w ­tһе ­adνiсе ­һеrе, ..Fox83.com

  • duckandcover


  • L.O.V.E.

    Dammit, Veronica. It is "their", not "there". You're (not "your") fired. Don't forget to stop by Janice in HR to leave your hamster wheel and block of cheese.

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